Located deep in the heart of Appalachia, the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music (KSBTM) preserves and promotes the musical heritage and culture of the region.
Located in the small Eastern Kentucky town of Hyden, with a population of less than 400, the school offers a one-of-a-kind education toward an associate degree, diploma, or certificate. “Depending on how much time they have, or what the student’s focus is, we are able to cater to them,” says instructional specialist Chris Mullins.
A multitude of nontraditional students attend KSBTM as a form of enrichment and personal education. Usually they choose to hone a particular skill or focus on a distinct musical interest, while also engaging in onstage performance and real-life band settings.
“I’m an aspiring songwriter, so that’s kind of how I got into it,” says Dan Woods. The 48-year-old father of three worked construction his whole career, but is proud to say he has completed three semesters at KSBTM. “They let you go outside the box a little bit,” he says. “It is probably the best experience I’ve had musically.”
KSBTM is an affordable community school that runs a wide gamut of demographics. “We get all kinds,” Mullins says. As one of six campuses from the Hazard Community and Technical College, students range from an 80-year-old guitar player to a homeschooled mandolin player graduating at age 15.
The satellite school officially opened its doors in 2006, taking shape in a renovated gymnasium. A $500,000 grant helped the school purchase new sound equipment and create a professional recording studio.
“I took the recording class because I’ve done some in the past, not having any knowledge at all,” Woods explains.
Students recruited from at least 16 states, learn traditional bluegrass instruments, such as banjo, mandolin, fiddle, dobro, guitar, and bass, along with performance skills and recording technology. “We are helping them cultivate their original music,” Mullins says, adding that many students write their own songs.
Teaching performance traditions goes beyond playing music, with emphasis also on bluegrass conventions such as stage presence and audience communication. “A bluegrass gig is different than playing in an orchestra or something like that,” Mullins explains. “There are other skills involved like the way musicians interact on stage and the way they improvise.”
Bringing the music of the region into perspective, KSBTM makes sure students understand the history of bluegrass, and its development from African-American spirituals and Mississippi Delta blues, blending with old-time string and country tunes, as well as ragtime and jazz.
“The history class is by far my favorite,” says student Wendy Fields. “It just encouraged me to play more. It has given me a deeper appreciation for bluegrass music.” At age 48, her rheumatoid arthritis may give her a little pain, but it hasn’t slowed her down. She’s retired from a county clerk’s office and now plays bass at her community church with a family band. Having graduated this past spring, she feels that KSBTM helped broaden her horizons to really pursue her musical passions.
“Hyden is a very small town, and we’ve created a little musical community,” Mullins says. Students are exposed to jam sessions around town, and often discover that the most rewarding form of enrichment can be the social aspect.
KSBTM prides itself on its top-notch staff and student-to-teacher rapport. Along with Mullins, instructors include the legendary Bobby Osborne, Grammy-winning Curtis Burch, event producer Dean Osborne, and lifetime banjoist J.P. Mathes, who has performed at the Carter Fold since he was 16 years old.
The school of bluegrass promotes community and camaraderie. By word of mouth, KSBTM continues to reel in students of all sorts. The bluegrass vibe of traditional music tends to develop a common repertoire between players that is widely recognized and has great appeal for nontraditional students.
But, the school also has a broader mission. “I think that it’s important for the preservation of our traditional music heritage that we have these programs and that it has some academic use,” Mullins explains. “We have to keep the music alive.”
This article is from our September-October 2013 issue. Click here to order.